The Needle goes away as probability experts assess 2020 race

National and World

Silver said the change had more to do with uncertainties created by the high volume of early voting this year than any failures in 2016

In this Friday Nov. 9, 2012 file photo, Nate Silver, statistician, unabashed numbers geek, author and creator of the much-read FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times, sits on the stairs at Allegro hotel in downtown Chicago.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — The one thing most likely to conjure nightmares of the 2016 election night for opponents of President Donald Trump is the Needle.

A graphic on The New York Times’ website, the Needle measured in real time the probability of victory for Trump or Hillary Clinton as votes were counted. Its steady movement triggered anxiety for Clinton supporters, who repeatedly refreshed the page, and elation for Trump fans.

The Needle won’t be making a reappearance on Nov. 3, one change in the world of election probability gurus following the unexpected 2016 result. Nate Silver’s influential FiveThirtyEight blog used a number, not a needle, for the same task four years ago but won’t on election night 2020.

Silver said the change had more to do with uncertainties created by the high volume of early voting this year than any failures in 2016.

“I just think people need to be exceptionally careful,” he said.

Silver has been a pioneer in the specialized field of statistic experts who crunch the growing number of public opinion polls to put them in a broader context. Nate Cohn of the Times and his blog The Upshot, is also a leader.

They amplified the shock of 2016 by predicting a high probability of a Clinton victory. Samuel Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium said she had a 93% chance of victory — a call that later led him to eat a cricket live on CNN as penance.

Cohn went into election night saying Clinton had an 85% chance of winning, and that served as the Needle’s baseline. The graphic was a meter, shaped like a half-clock, with outcomes that ranged from a “very likely” Clinton win to the same for Trump.

At 8:02 p.m. Eastern time on election night, the Needle pointed sharply to the left, and a “likely” Clinton win. It moved to the right as results came in. By 10 p.m., the pointer headed into the “toss-up” category and, less than two hours later, was “leaning Trump.”

You know how the story ended.

In later mea culpas, pollsters noted they weren’t far off in predicting Clinton’s advantage in the popular vote. Crucial state polls in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had been wrong, however, and that was enough for Trump to win the Electoral College.

Silver was more cautious heading into election night; his final forecast gave Clinton a 71% chance of winning and Trump a 29% likelihood. For that, he was criticized by those who couldn’t conceive of a Trump win.

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